01 May 2012

The Persistence of False Information #nlpoli

In an interview on The Current last week,  Anthony Germain asked Premier Kathy Dunderdale why she wasn’t trying to sell Muskrat Falls to people in Newfoundland and Labrador as Danny Williams might have.

“If we are going to break Quebec’s stranglehold on the province…” suggested Germain, as he cast the project as an exercise in building the nation of Newfoundland. 

Well yes, all that is true agreed Dunderdale, but the project was worthwhile anyway because it gave the people of the province an asset.

Germain didn’t come up with the phrase by accident.  The official Muskrat Falls news release in November 2010 included this quote attributed to Danny Williams:

"This is a day of great historic significance to Newfoundland and Labrador as we move forward with development of the Lower Churchill project, on our own terms and free of the geographic stranglehold of Quebec which has for too long determined the fate of the most attractive clean energy project in North America…” [Emphasis added]

You’ll find variations of the same line  - about breaking the Quebec stranglehold - in most news stories on the project.  Just consider this a sample:  a news story in the Star from April 2012, a CBC online backgrounder on the project from April 2011,  a Telegraph-Journal story from April 2011, a Globe and Mail editorial from November 2010 and a gushing Canadian Business Journal piece from January 2011.

The idea that Quebec is blocking development of Labrador hydro-electricity is very familiar.  In that respect, there was nothing surprising  in the fact that Anthony Germain asked the question he did and that Kathy Dunderdale breezed over it as true and then went on to talk about some other detail of Muskrat Falls.

What is amazing about the idea is that there isn’t a shred of truth in it.


Not true.

Completely false.

We know that Quebec no longer has a stranglehold on Labrador development because Danny Williams said so.

The time:  April 2009.

The situation:  Nalcor’s sale of electricity from Churchill Falls to Emera in New York, wheeled through Quebec.

As CBC reported at the time:

"It shows that our power is not stranded power," [Williams] said.

"We're not forced to just sell it at the border to Quebec at whatever price Quebec wants to pay for it."

Now one can understand that this sort of reporting happened in late 2010 when people were still covering the events immediately in front of them.  But why has this particular piece of false information persisted in news stories about Muskrat Falls since then?

Partly it’s because politicians keep repeating the false information.  Here’s natural resources minister Jerome Kennedy in the House of Assembly on March 22:

…Gull Island is not possible because we cannot get through Quebec, …

For the mainlanders, you can put it down to the fact they just never heard of the April 2009 deal and know even less about electricity regulation in Canada and the United States.  Add to that the lousy fact-checking in the modern, highly-competitive, under-staffed newsrooms of the 21st century.

As for the locals, though, the persistence of the stranglehold claim is a bit of a head-scratcher.  After all, they covered the April 2009 wheeling deal and reported Williams comments at the time. That didn’t stop them from ignoring it entirely a year later when they covered news stories about  Nalcor’s unsuccessful appeals to the Quebec energy regulator about transmitting Labrador electricity through Quebec.

You can probably explain the locals with the Echo Chamber effect.  As it seems, the local media don’t challenge official pronouncements especially when nobody else in the community is doing so.  They report what others said or did, nothing more.   You can find a similar practice in other places, but the big difference between here and the United States, for example, is the existence in the US of strongly held and publicly expressed alternate points of view. 

- srbp -